Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cleaving the Gordian Knot: New Thinking Required on Asylum Seekers

ALP members woke this morning to news that Federal Labor Leader Bill Shorten's policy supporting a turn-back policy on irregular boat arrivals is now an option for adoption into the Labor policy platform.


This would appear to bring the Labor Party into furious agreement with the Coalition Government’s policy on this most vexed of asylum seeker policy positions.  Whether this was done for altruistic or political reasons was a subject of some debate on the floor of this weekend’s Conference.


Couched in terms of saving asylum seekers’ lives and dismantling people smugglers’ business model this policy has had undeniable success since its formal imposition by the Abbott Government immediately following their resounding election win in September 2013.


So what is the way forward on this Gordian knot of a tragedy amidst a growing international crisis.  Will Shorten’s pronouncements be tempered with a greater refugee intake and a more humanitarian approach to processing asylum seekers to appease the party’s left faction or will it be “all the way with LBJ”?


Way back in December 2013, newly minted Senator for New South Wales Sam Dastyari gave his maiden speech to the Federal Senate.  Dastyari is an Iranian immigrant whose family fled their home as refugees in the late 1980s when Sam was 5 years old.  His family made their home in Australia and, with Sam's appointment to the Senate last year, the Dastyari story is a good one.


Dastyari has called for a new debate on the plight of Asylum Seekers and a fresh look at Australia's asylum seeker policy.  In that vein, and motivated by several years of complete frustration with the tone of Australia’s asylum seeker debate, what follows are a few thoughts on this intractable issue.


This is by no means a policy statement to rival Shorten’s and much work needs to be done to bring this thinking from nascent ideas to formal policy.  So first some background:


The opening statement of the Australian Human Rights Commission Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Human Rights Snapshot1 report states that, "For over 20 years successive Australian governments have adopted various policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers from arriving by boat.  During this period mandatory immigration detention and offshore processing have been key policies in attempts to reduce the number of boat arrivals."

The basis of Australia’s Asylum Seeker policy is narrowly focussed on “removing the people smuggler's business model” and there has been a parallel escalation of punitive conditions for entry (or non-entry) into Australia.  The language - 'business model', 'illegal immigrant’ etc. - dehumanises Asylum Seekers and demonizes the victims.  Certainly there has been a sincere attempt from all sides of politics to stop the staggering loss of life of Asylum Seekers at sea but the current policy is aimed at deterring the victims and intimating that what they are fleeing to is at least as bad or worse than what they are fleeing from.


The punitive premise of this policy position perpetuated over that 20 year period is fundamentally wrong.  Australia has the moral obligation and the economic capacity to develop permissive and empathetic policies to support the resettlement of the world’s most disadvantaged people.


Australia has resettled around 800,000 refugees since World War II, building one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies” (Australian Human Rights Commission2 ).  That Australia has encouraged and facilitated such extensive and successful migration over a relatively short period of time is a fact that is not lost on prospective refugees.  The idea that, rather than welcoming and allowing them to become part of this successful multicultural society, Australia will prohibit their arrival; forcibly relocate them to regional processing centres; and, never allow them to settle here is completely at odds with their image of our country.


At the risk of perpetuating the practice of reducing Asylum Seekers to numbers and statistics, let's look at who these people are and what motivated them to risk their lives at sea to get here:


For Afghani Asylum Seekers, the following findings have been published by the Cost of War Project2:

•There are an estimated 447,547 internally displaced persons(IDPs) in Afghanistan

•As of 2012, there remained 1.8 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, just over 1,000,000 in Iran and around 90,000 in other neighbouring countries

•Many IDPs and return refugees are unable to resettle in their place of origin and live in informal settlements in Kabul and other cities

•Over half of all Afghans do not have clean water and 63 per cent lack effective sanitation

•One third of Afghans survive on less than $1 a day

•Another third of the population is ranked just above this extreme poverty marker

•Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world

•Afghanistan has the highest rates of under-5 mortality in Asia, with levels comparable to other countries experiencing prolonged crises, such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

•There are an average of 55 health personnel—including doctors, nurses, and midwives—for every 10,000 inhabitants


The complex nature of the Sri Lankan Asylum Seeker challenge is described by Paul Komesaroff, Monash University; Paul James, RMIT University, and Suresh Sundram, University of Melbourne in their article for The Conversation3 as follows:


"The million or so people who left South-east Asia after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not fleeing straightforward oppression: they were leaving behind sites of trauma and despair that had become too painful."


"The flight of Sri Lankan citizens — Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim — after the conclusion of the recent civil war largely fits this pattern. The alleged autocratic nature of the regime, continuing human rights abuses and threats to democratic processes, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary may well exist, but they are not the reasons why thousands of people are prepared to risk their lives to leave their homeland."


A common allegation levelled at Sri Lanka’s Asylum Seekers heading to Australia is that they are largely coming for economic reasons.  Komesaroff, James and Sundram’s hypothesis is that the reasons are far more complex than pure economics and that there is no future for Sri Lankan Asylum Seekers in their home country.  "They do not see a future for themselves there.  They are leaving because their hope, depleted by decades of conflict, has not been restored by the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of some level of material wealth."


For SomaliaRefugees International4 indicate :"As of September 2013, there were more than 1.1 million Somalis displaced internally and nearly one million refugees living in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen."

"The government installed in 2012 controls only a fraction of the country, and those areas remain fragile in the face of tension between competing warlords and frequent attacks from the Al Shabab terrorist group."

The plight of Somali’s massive volume of displaced peoples iswell documented and few people could truly remain unmoved by the graphic brutality that is the cornerstone of Somalia’s tragic domestic circumstances.


In Syria: Refugees International5 indicate: "As of July 2013, more than 1.5 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighbouring countries, and refugees already in Syria from third countries are being displaced again in growing numbers."


"Best estimates suggest that 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced, while up to 6.8 million inside the country may be vulnerable and in need of humanitarian assistance."


The United Nations Population Fund reports6 that: "As the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic is now well into its third year, around 9.3 million people are reported to be directly affected by the crisis, more than 5 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and over 2.2 million refugees have poured into neighbouring countries, of which more than 500,000 are women and girls of reproductive age and 41,000 are pregnant. The United Nations expects another 2.25 million more to be displaced within the Syrian Arab Republic and an additional 2 million Syrians to become refugees in 2014.


Television news and Facebook feeds are full of horrific images from the Syrian crisis.  Although later claimed to be an overreach, the troubling image7 of 4 year old Marwan,posted by Andrew Harper of the UN, serves only to highlight the unimaginable conditions being experienced in this most current of war torn countries.  We have not even begun to see the incredible volume of refugees searching for asylum in our regions in the near future from this conflict.

Marwan, 4, allegedly toddling alone in the desert at the Hagallatborder crossing
Photo courtesy of

These are all undeniably desperate people – people with whom we can only vaguely empathise given our comfort and privilege living in Australia.  And yet we, who can afford both materially and morally, to do so much, do so little.  Is there another way?

A peculiar recent phenomenon of our wealthy, consumer-driven society is the concept of the pop-up business.  


Pop-ups are typically of short duration, in high traffic areas, in low-rent premises – usually paid upfront and are used to sell or launch products, be a presence during special events, generate awareness, move inventory or test ideas.

Perhaps this concept can be adapted for our overseas aid program.

A marquee; card table; satellite-phone; and an internetconnection located in the middle of a refugee camp in Kenya, Lebanon, Jordan or Pakistan etc. staffed with Immigration and other Federal Government officials facilitating the processing of Asylum Seekers at source.  Yes, UNHCR do this workalready for those nations signed up to the appropriate conventions but, in this case, we are specifically addressing the needs of a small number of Asylum Seekers who hope that Australia offers them a possible safe refuge and new start.  


The goal is to provide those who apply and pass initial checks with safe passage to Australia by chartered aircraft or boat.  No more people smugglers required.  AN ultimate goal is to offer permanent residency or citizenship.


As well as at source countries, this facility could also operatein transit countries.  Most countries currently used as transit stops by Asylum Seekers are unable or unwilling to deal with the refugee problem on a permanent basis on their own and would be delighted to see a solution that involves the expeditious transit of Asylum Seekers through their shores.


Obviously there are sovereignty issues that need to be thrashed out with host countries but there are already diplomatic protocols that can be adapted and the pop-up concept would hardly impose long-term imposts on the host countries.


But what do we do with the Asylum Seekers when they arrive on our shores?


Our history is replete with the successes of displaced people (Asylum Seekers of their era) contributing significantly to the prosperity and success of this nation.  We need to get back to an understanding of what is good about what we have achieved and how that will be enhanced with an expanded intake of refugees.

In a November 2012 article for Australian Policy Online8 ,Luke Condon from The Allen Consulting Group said: “There is a strong imperative for coordinated action to address current and looming skill shortages in the wider agricultural sector”.  The same can be said in other non-agricultural sectors.


By identifying labour shortages in rural and regional areas,Asylum Seekers, many of whom would have expertise in the areas where we have shortages, would receive meaningful and valuable work - giving them a purpose and a faster track to integration.  Any initial government investment in this scheme would be quickly repaid with increased productivity.


Through intelligent policy development, recognition of prior learning for qualified Asylum Seekers (Doctors, engineers, scientists, etc.) could be fast-tracked and accredited experts would have the opportunity for immediate employment in an expanding marketplace.  A considered expansion, with the goal of permanent employment, of the 457 visa scheme9should also be considered.


Clive Brooks in his article Understanding Immigrants and the Labour Market10 says: “Quite a large number of Australian studies have looked at the impact of immigration on the unemployment rate and all have found that overall immigration, despite the fears of some commentators, does not lead to increases in the unemployment rate.


Yes, there would be the expected “they’re coming here and taking our jobs” protests but studies like the above haveshown this is baseless, particularly when the relatively small numbers of people we are referring to is considered.  (Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection publications indicate only a little over 18,000 “Irregular Maritime Arrival” came to Australia in 2012-1311.)  This is just not that big a problem.


Both Sydney and Melbourne have large populations of immigrants.  Far from being squalid enclaves of isolated and isolationist groups, these areas are arguably some of the most interesting, culturally diverse and bustling areas in our cities.  Yes, there are social issues and crime can be higher than the norm but, in general, what you witness in these areas is people going about their business, setting up small and medium enterprises and generally becoming that diverse cultural mixthat epitomises our successful Australian community.

Disappointment with the major parties refusal to take up the moral challenge and address this issue from a fresh policy perspective is, anecdotally at any rate, becoming more prevalent. However, both parties have indicated continued support for current policies.  The Labor Party is cornered by former Prime Minister Rudd’s late adoption of the PNG solution and fear that a quantum change in ALP policy in this area will be criticised roundly on the floor of Parliament and Prime Minister Abbott’s recent pronouncements in the media seem to indicate, if anything, a hardening of the Coalition’s position on this issue:  “We will not succumb to pressure, to moral blackmail’’ and “[w]e will ensure these camps are run fairly, if necessary firmly’’12.


But Australia can and should address this issue with new vision.  Whether that is done by exploring ideas like the onesabove or through some other means Australia is ready forchange.  It shouldn’t take more deaths before we do.


The Asylum Seeker issue will not go away.  Continued unrest in Syria and the increasingly likely potential for environmental refugees from our own region guarantees that the problem will worsen.  A clear indication from the major parties that new and positive thinking on this issue is happening is well overdue and whilst the Australian public may not get the opportunity to judge this thinking until the next election, I’m not sure our Asylum Seeker brethren can wait that long.


At Labor’s National Conference, perhaps the debate on Shorten’s policy proposal may be the catalyst for this debate to move forward and cleave this Gordian knot.


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